Tension and a Tightrope

Photo Credit: Pixabay

[ Author: Kathy Petersen ]

Only apparent contradictions

Some Biblical passages may be difficult to understand or explain, or even seem to contradict other passages. Sometimes, scholars may say that there is “tension” in the text – and the way they use the term “tension” seems to be a polite way of saying “contradiction”. But is this the case? If a person is determined to see contradiction, he will be able to. But just because someone claims contradiction, it doesn’t mean it is an inherent contradiction. I don’t particularly mind the term “tension”, as long as it doesn’t mean “contradiction”. And, really, sometimes “tension” is good.

What good would a tightrope be without tension? A slack rope is harder to walk across, and may even be impossible. In a tightrope, tension is good and even necessary, so that the person can safely cross from one side to the other.

Biblical instructions, warnings, and admonitions are like this – the “tension” helps keep the studious Bible reader from straying (or swaying) too far to one side or another. It does little good to avoid the left-hand ditch, if you only end up falling into the right-hand ditch. It does little good to avoid falling off the tightrope on the right if you end up falling off on the left.

Think about instructions to make a hamburger “big, but not too big”. Is such a thing a contradiction, or does the one part of the instruction help balance out the other part, so that the preferred size is made? The Bible is like this as well. Since “tension” is sometimes used to mean “contradiction”, I prefer to use the term “tightrope” to think about these passages which may seem at first glance to contradict or to have difficulty in resolving them. Usually if not always, careful study will demonstrate that the only “tension” in the passage is such that is necessary to keep the tightrope taut, so that the person can “stay on the strait and narrow”.

Does Paul really contradict James?

Many people claim that Paul and James contradict, because Paul is well noted for preaching salvation by grace through, while James emphasizes works as part of salvation. But this is a false contradiction, because Paul consistently and clearly talks about works and how that Christians need to do good things and not do bad things.

Taking the letters of Paul in the order in which they appear in our Bibles, we see that they are full of instruction to Christians about what they ought and ought not to do, but some places where specific sins (or a sinful lifestyle) are mentioned and prohibited, and where specific actions (or a righteous lifestyle) are mentioned and encouraged or prescribed, include the following:

Rom. 1:28-30 is one “vice list” which describes many sins that are the result of a reprobate mind.

Rom. 6:1-2 famously says, “Shall we continue in sin, that grace may abound? God forbid. How shall we that are dead to sin, live any longer therein?” The chapter then continues with Paul talking about how that believers are to live righteous lives and to avoid sin and unrighteousness

Rom. 12 begins a section (which actually stretches several chapters) in which Paul details a list of virtuous behaviors and actions that believers are to engage in, both towards each other and towards those who are outside (including towards the governmental authorities in chap. 13), and towards those believers who are weak (chap. 14 & 15).

1 Cor. 5 & 6 contain another “vice list” or two, with both listing several of the same sins (fornication, etc.), but with some listed in only one.

2 Cor. 7:1, after talking about how that believers are the Temple of God, adjures believers to “cleanse ourselves from all filthiness of the flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God.”

Galatians 5 also contains another “vice list”, which is followed by the famous “fruit of the Spirit” as a contrast, saying that those who are Christ’s “have crucified the flesh with the affections and lusts”.

Ephesians likewise includes a lengthy section (much of ch. 4 & 5) in which the believers are encouraged to do X and not to do Y (e.g., “stop lying, and start speaking the truth; stop stealing, and start working to earn money to live)

Need I go on? I certainly could, but I trust that the above is sufficient to show that Paul nowhere minimizes or diminishes the place that works has in the life of the believer, both in doing good works and in stopping doing bad works.

The meat of the matter

Now let’s look at the relevant section of James, which is chapter two. Most often, people who make the claim that James’s view of works is opposed to Paul’s view of works do not read it in context (so please start with chapter 1 and read through the end of chapter 2). Instead, they’ll pick out a verse here and there, as if that is the sum total that James said on the topic of works. The typical verses are as follows:

14 What doth it profit, my brethren, though a man say he hath faith, and have not works? can faith save him?

17 Even so faith, if it hath not works, is dead, being alone.

24 Ye see then how that by works a man is justified, and not by faith only.

“SEE!!” they’ll exclaim, “James says that a man is justified by works while Paul knows nothing of that and says that a man is justified by faith! James says that works is necessary, but Paul only talks about faith.”

There are two main points, and the first is the definition of “justification”. It can mean either to make righteous or to declare righteous. Often, people don’t realize that the second meaning is possible, but you can always point out that in Luke 7:29 that the people “justified God”. This cannot possibly mean that the people made God righteous, so it must mean that they declared God to be righteous.

The meaning of “justify” in any given passage, then, may be different based on the context – and sometimes people may disagree on whether a certain passage is saying that a man is declared righteous, because he actually is righteous or is “not guilty” of a certain sin or crime or is made righteous (i.e., he actually is guilty but is washed and purified by the blood of Christ and is caused to become righteous in the sight of God).

The second point is the context of this passage in James. Consider 1:22 in which he says to “be doers of the word, and not hearers only,” adding that those who are hearers only and not doers (i.e., those whose lives don’t match their claimed beliefs) are “deceiving your own selves”. He then likens those who hear without doing as one who looks at a mirror but does nothing about what he sees in the mirror. James then speaks at some length on various good works (much like Paul did in the passages quoted above), before returning to the topic of hypocritically claiming a belief without that belief actually impacting one’s life.

14 What doth it profit, my brethren, though a man say he hath faith, and have not works? can faith save him?

15 If a brother or sister be naked, and destitute of daily food,

16 And one of you say unto them, Depart in peace, be ye warmed and filled; notwithstanding ye give them not those things which are needful to the body; what doth it profit?

17 Even so faith, if it hath not works, is dead, being alone.

18 Yea, a man may say, Thou hast faith, and I have works: shew me thy faith without thy works, and I will shew thee my faith by my works.

First – I must note that v. 14 “can faith save him” can also be translated, “can that faith save him,” because the passage (in the Greek and/or in the context) says or at least implies that the faith under consideration is the type of faith that doesn’t have works. So the question isn’t, “can faith alone like Paul talks about save a person?” but is rather, “can a faith devoid of and apart from any accompanying works save a person?” And here, we see that Paul and James are in total agreement, because Paul never  talks about a faith devoid of works, but constantly confirms that true believers will have works that accompany their faith.

Second  let’s look at the analogy that James uses, and see what we can glean from it. James’s example is of one who claims that he wants the person to have sufficient food and clothing but doesn’t actually give the person the food or clothes that he needs. The question is, if you make a claim about something, but your actions don’t match your claim, do you really believe what you claimed you believe?

Practice what you preach

Consider someone who claims that she has a premonition that her house will burn down tonight, killing everyone inside – and then she calmly goes to sleep in the house she just claimed to believe would burn down and kill her! Does she really believe what she claimed to believe? Or is she just making the claim without actually believing it? James is saying that true faith will be accompanied by befitting actions, while a claimed faith that is not accompanied by appropriate actions is no faith at all.

So, there is no disagreement between Paul and James. Both agree that belief will be accompanied by actions that demonstrate that belief. Paul’s frequent, near-constant exhortations and instructions on what believers are to do or refrain from doing show that he never emphasized or even talked about a faith without works, continually saying that those who truly believe should act in certain ways, and that if a claimed believer does not act in those ways, that the church is to remove him from membership as not being a true believer.

Yet because Paul does not express “faith without works is dead, being alone,” as clearly as James does, it might be tempting, if we had only Paul’s letters, to think that a person could claim a belief even without actions. [Though as stated before, it would be ignoring what Paul does say about works accompanying belief and arguing from silence.] But James’s clear teaching enables that proper tension (not “contradiction”) that keeps the tightrope taut, so that the person can see what the entirety of the Bible teaches on the topic of faith and works, to keep him from falling off a slack rope, on one side or the other.

About Razor Swift

The mission of Razor Swift is to open hearts and minds through apologetics, sharing the Christian worldview with reasoned answers while encouraging those in the faith.
This entry was posted in Apologetics, Bible. Bookmark the permalink.